Los Angeles Theater Review: THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES (Sierra Madre Playhouse)

by Tony Frankel on August 7, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles

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IT WONDERS ME

It’s uncanny that ever since Roger Bean wrote and directed this asinine jukebox musical in 1999, it’s lightweight nostalgia factor and updated arrangements of 50s and 60s tunes keeps packing them in from coast to coast. Since The Marvelous Wonderettes was clearly designed to appeal to an older crowd seeking sentimentalism (a cheap trick which staged jukebox musicals have been doing since the 1980s), it’s understandable why most viewers will look past the many shortcomings and see this as a charming love letter to classic songs (no wonder the run at the Sierra Madre Playhouse has been extended well into September).

But I couldn’t get past the sameness and silliness of it. And neither could the great director Robert Marra, who has in the past performed miracles working out the kinks of so-so-musicals; he seems uncharacteristically uninspired, and plays up the dumb instead of reinventing the show on any level. This is theater as comfort food. And in a world of pea-brained politics, global warming, wobbly economies, nuclear threat, and meandering millennials, it’s no wonder that people are starving for escapism. But for me, Act I was barely bearable and Act II got downright dull, even as the vocals got better and better. Naturally, there are great moments—I mean, with over 30 songs, something’s gotta hit.

Here’s the story: We are at the 1958 Springfield High School senior prom, and the entertainment isn’t coming because the leader of The Crooning Crab Cakes got busted for smoking around the girls’ lockers. Fortunately, there is a replacement four-girl group named The Wonderettes who can somehow belt and rock sophisticated harmonies as they grapple with adolescent issues such as lost love and rivalry. There isn’t a single thing about how they formed or rehearsed, and the onstage asides, bickering, and airing of dirty laundry seem inappropriate and implausible. Bean gave us much more back story in the equally frothy but much more successful Life Could Be a Dream, which is about the formation of a boy group.

Marra cast four outstanding vocalists to play the cheeky archetypal characters (the tomboy, the teacher’s pet, etc.). Kelsey Boze, Kelly Klopocinski, Kate Ponzio, and Afton Quast work their tails off, and their harmonies are swell, but for some strange reason we don’t end up with rip-roarin’ renditions of the Golden Oldies; even with some individual showcasing, the quartet just doesn’t knock these songs out of the park. And had there been more delightful moments in the show, it wouldn’t have mattered that there really isn’t a plot (unless you consider the girls’ performance at the prom in the first act and their performance at their 10-year reunion in act two a plot). And the audience participation (filling out ballots for one) goes absolutely nowhere.

Here, it’s painfully blatant how Bean’s nonsensical and repetitive set-ups (a feud that suddenly resolves itself for no reason; a pregnant girl who nearly collapses in one song but is kicking up her heels two songs later) are merely a device to get to the next standard. Act II is especially a letdown because the counterculture of 1968 is as glossed-over as the plot.

The constant “Oh my God, I forgot we’re performing for a room full of people” moments and the sugary-sweet instantaneous make-up sessions wouldn’t have been so wrong had Marra injected some grounded realism into this thing. Jeff Cason’s sets and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes are appropriately cheesy (the 1968 feathered outfits kept molting), but the change from one decade to another doesn’t ring true. Sean Paxton’s band can play it up great, but they can be uneven and the piano could have been much beefier. Marra’s choreography is appropriately fun, but similar in number-after-number-after-number. The whole thing feels as fake as Jessica Mills’s wigs.

But that’s not what this sentimental night is about. Would that I could not think, not analyze, and just sit back for some old-school favorites. With that attitude, The Marvelous Wonderettes might have been both marvelous and wonderful.

photos by Gina Long

The Marvelous Wonderettes
Sierra Madre Playhouse
87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre
Fri at 8; Sat at 2:30 and 8; Sun at 2:30
ends on August 27, 2017
EXTENDED to September 17, 2017
for tickets, call 626.355.4318 or visit Sierra Madre Playhouse

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